A snow globe in a theater? A theater in a snow globe? The crafty – and strategically minimal – set that placed North Carolina Theatre‘s kicky, caffeinated production of Elf – The Musical within a gold-plaqued bubble wasn’t the only element that foregrounded the show’s size and proportions as the opening show of the company’s 2023-2024 season. Its staging in the relatively intimate confines of Fletcher Opera Theater (while Theatre in the Park‘s annual stand of A Christmas Carol held the mainstage at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, next door) also spoke of an organization still struggling to find new norms and rightsize its operations in the wake of an economic upheaval brought on by the COVID pandemic, one that has threatened theatre companies, small and large, across the country.

With audiences and sponsors returning to live theatre more slowly than anticipated, the company posted a deficit of over $950,000 on 2022 tax forms. Among its responses to the shortfall, NCT said in February that their current season would be produced entirely on the Fletcher’s smaller stage. Then, at the beginning of November, Executive Artistic Director Eric Woodall announced that the company needed $500,000 in “immediate attention and assistance” to continue operations, with more support required over the long term.

Against that backdrop, the company urgently needed a robust season opener to reassure supporters. A holiday crowd-pleaser to boost ticket sales wouldn’t go amiss either. Happily, Elf, a stage adaptation of the 2003 Will Ferrell film, provides both.

Writers Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin are certainly no strangers to daffy musical theatre sendups, including Hairspray and The Drowsy Chaperone. From the start, their genial book and Chad Beguelin‘s sly, subversive lyrics toy with holiday show conventions. The premise for the opening song? How disturbingly happy Kris Kringle’s elves are, all the time. Before a bemused Santa (Jim Bray) cuts them off, his helpers cheer, “We’ve been known to smile so wide that you can see each molar! We’ve only been to one pole!” “But they still might be bipolar,” a befuddled Father Christmas rejoins.

Under Woodall’s sure-footed direction, actor Max Chernin carbonates central character Buddy on his trek of self- and world-discovery in search of his human father, grouchy big-city publishing executive Walter Hobbs (Sean Allan Krill). As in the film, the irrepressible 30-year-old naïf, beset by developmental delays from a childhood among elves, but buoyed by an unsinkable faith in the goodness of Christmas, encounters New Yorkers of all stripes. Cultural miscues abound. When Buddy asks cynical potential love interest Jovie (Courtnee Carter), “Would somebody like a hug,” she responds, “Would somebody like a punch in the throat?”

Still, an assortment of cops, office workers (including Okisha Renée Wells’ Deb), street vendors, and a department store manager (vivid Malachi McCaskill) gradually get the Christmas spirit. A harder nut to crack, so to speak, is Hobbs’ joyless family, including disaffected wife Emily (Katy Voytko) and precocious son, Michael (sharp Cameron Lewis). Though these relationships are underscripted, Beguelin still catches us emotionally off-guard. In “I’ll Believe in You,” mother and son include in their letters to Santa, “I can get you some cookies if that’s what it takes… You just slide down the chimney and fix our mistakes.”

Music director Andrew Bourgoin deftly drives his eight-piece band through Carter’s bluesy mid-show take on “Never Fall in Love,” and the distaff downbeat jazz of “Nobody Cares about Santa” add savor to the evening’s work.

As in the film, the holes in continuity and logic here are more than big enough to drive a one-horse sleigh through. Still, in “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” and the rousing “Finale,” all-singing numbers animated by Nikki Long‘s choreography, the whole crew winds up sucked into the chaotic Christmas vortex of an odd human elf who believes in Santa, sometimes more than Santa believes in himself.

NCT has economized where it’s wisest to do so here, easily saving tens of thousands of dollars by leasing designer Jason Sherwood‘s set and Colleen Grady‘s eye-popping costumes from the noted Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, instead of reinventing all those theatrical wheels here.

It still takes a not-so-small army of professionals we never see – stitchers, dressers, stagehands, and more – to put on a professional-grade show that’s made mostly from scratch. But, in wisely husbanding finite resources, North Carolina Theatre’s made a solid bid for sustainability at the start of a crucial year. In Elf, the result is a big-stage production that feels just right on the Fletcher stage.

Elf continues through Sunday, December 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.


When I was a child, my first, wholly unsupervised excursions, far, far beyond my small tobacco town in northern North Carolina, were made by listening on a headset to late-night radio: AM-band broadcasts from clear channel stations in Cincinnati, New York, Chicago, and Montreal.

It’s funny: though those songs and thoughtful conversations I eavesdropped on from an adolescent’s bed have long since ended, the melodies, the meanings linger on. I later worked in radio, in high school and college, and to tell the truth, it’s work that I’m still haunted by: an evanescent medium through which voices come, out of the darkness, to comfort, connect, and bring news of unknown people and places, far away.

So, fair warning: whatever aesthetic objectivity I possess is tested by a show like The 1940s Radio Hour, a curious and pretty thinly-scripted work that transports the jukebox musical genre to the titular decade, when dozens of shows like Chesterfield’s Moonlight Serenade on NBC Radio sent live music far across the night skies to homes, not only hundreds of miles away, but via shortwave to American troops fighting in the Second World War.

It’s the night of December 21, 1942, and the big broadcast is on the air from Radio WOV – “V for Victory,” announcer Clifton Fedderman (Greg Laux) intones – just barely, that is. A ragtag crew of band members and singers has braved the snow in New York City, making their way to the uptown studio moments before showtime, far too late for a needed last rehearsal.

No matter. If push comes to shove, they’ll wing it, like always; seat-of-the-pant-ing it while stalwart, seen-it-all producer and foley artist Lou (solid Susan Jordan Shank) herds these contrary cats into something that sounds like a radio show.

Off-stage, Julia Murney, the show’s real stage director, and music director Kevin Lawson channel the simulated chaos of live radio into sometimes seamless, sometimes comic misadventures that still get the show on the air.

Sterling musical and dramatic moments stud this 90-minute time-travel device. Among the striking solos in this radio cavalcade, Melvin Gray Jr.‘s smoky take on “You Go to My Head,” Soraiah Williams’ moody, showstopping cover of “I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), Ellie Barone’s pensive version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and Adam Poole‘s “Love Is Here to Stay” are standouts. Close four-part harmonies and Tristan André‘s choreography animate ensemble works including “(I Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” leavened by vintage commercial jingles.

Pops, the doorman who’s seen them come and go (veteran David Bartlett), directs the traffic, as a way-too-eager stage-door Johnny (Hunter Taylor) begs for chance to go on, a singer back from basic training (Keagan Kermode) makes a final appearance before shipping out overseas, and an ingénue (Becky Layko) navigates her first experiences with stardom.

 There’s cold and darkness at the edges of this world. Beyond the urban chaos of storms and mid-town traffic and individual, personal eclipses involving alcoholism and self-doubt, the existential crises of war threaten a continent and entire subsets of the human race.

There’s not much that twenty people in a room in New York City can do about any of those things. But for 90 minutes on one December night, at least they can keep the dark at bay. They can put on a show, and send a signal out, connecting those who need that connection, with us, the world, and home.

The 1940s Radio Hour continues through Sunday, December 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.